Last Sunday (30 October 2016) I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch (https://www.facebook.com/NelmesURC/).
The gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday dealt with a subject that is dear to many people: “money”.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Money and how people use or abuse it features throughout the Bible.
You can do many things with money. You can do good or you can do bad.
Money and possessions can do many things to people.
Often we have to ask do we own our possessions or do they own us?
Many years ago the first hit record of Tamla Motown records was called “Money (that’s what I want)”. If you don’t know the song you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnP7hNLWisA.
“The best things in life are free
But you can give then to the birds and bees
I need money (that’s what I want)
Money don’t get everything, it’s true
But what it don’t get, I can’t use
I need money (that’s what I want)
Money (that’s what I want)
Lots of money (that’s what I want)
Whole lot of money (that’s what I want)”
We read in the Bible that Jesus has a lot to say about money.
Many people are reluctant for many reasons to part with their money.
So when asked whether people should pay their taxes Jesus has this answer in Mark 12:14 – 17 “ Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”“Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”.
I am never surprised at people who try to avoid their taxes. Even Christians do it.
I was however amazed the other day when a young man I know who is being considered for ordained ministry said that he done a job for cash so that it didn’t have to go through the books.
A long time ago I was on the leadership team of a church when we had an estimate for some vital safety work that had to be undertaken. We were told that if we paid cash we could have a 15% discount. That was the VAT rate at the time so it was clear that the work was not going through the contractor’s books. Some of the people at that meeting couldn’t see a problem as it would save the church money!
We can compare two conversations that Jesus had with men who have money. Only one has a positive outcome.
In Matthew 19:16 – 23 we read “ 16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honour your father and mother,’and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Clearly this man valued his possessions more than the chance of eternal life.
Having money it not the problem. Having it as the most important thing in your life is the problem.
Our Bible reading for today, deals with another rich man, but the outcome is quite different and maybe that is the reason we know the man’s name. Although one of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandra gives Zacchaeus the surname Matthias and claims that this Matthias was the man chosen by the disciples to replace Judas Iscariot. (See Acts 1:21 – 26)
In Hebrew the name Zacchaeus means “Innocent” or “pure”. Up until he met with Jesus in the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus would not have been considered innocent or pure.
He was the chief tax collector in Jericho for the Roman Empire. The Roman tax gathering system seems to have worked as a franchise. The Roman’s told the tax gatherer how much they expected from each person and the tax gatherer added his percentage on to the bill. And no doubt it could be a nice little earner.
Jericho being the centre for the lucrative production and export of balsam meant that potentially there was a lot of tax to be collected. Balsam was known in Biblical times as “Balm of Gilead”.
Zacchaeus was not only unpopular because he charged the people too much tax, but also he was a Jew working for the hated Roman occupiers. He was a collaborator.
History tells us how collaborators were treated in Europe after the 2nd World War was over and the German occupiers were defeated. However Zacchaeus would have been safe because of the Roman army in Jericho.
So Jesus comes into town. He is a famous teacher and lots of people want to see him and the streets are crowded. Zacchaeus had a problem seeing Jesus because of his lack of stature so that he couldn’t see over the crowd. No doubt the good people of Jericho made sure that Zacchaeus couldn’t get to a good vantage point.
As we read Zacchaeus was resourceful and climbed into a sycamore tree.
I wonder how Zacchaeus felt when Jesus spotted him and called to him. Maybe he expected abuse from the teacher for him working for the hated Romans.
But what Jesus says to the man is astounding. Luke 19:5 “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
How did Jesus know his name?
The crowd were naturally angry. How dare this Jesus talk to this awful man? Not only that, but Jesus is going to stay at the man’s house.
Sadly I have known believers who are annoyed when perhaps “undesirables” come to faith. They forget that Jesus came to save anyone who willing come to him, whoever they are and whatever they have done.
However the greatest reaction is from Zacchaeus himself. In an instant he repents and shows his repentance, his change of heart: Luke 19:8 “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” “
What a change of heart. The man who loved money shows how sorry he is by his actions. Not only is he going to give away half his fortune to the poor but he is going to repay four times as much to those he has cheated.
He either had been a wealthy man to start with or he is going to bankrupt himself!
I believe that it was Billy Graham who said that the last thing to get converted is a man’s wallet.
Clearly this is not the case with Zacchaeus.
Jesus says Luke 19:10 “ For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” and as we are his disciples this should be our mission as well, irrespective of who the people are that God sends our way.
And also the Bible challenges us about our money, our possessions. Do we own them or do they own us?
Are we like the rich young man who can’t let go of his possessions or are we like Zacchaeus responding to Jesus’ call and being generous with what we own?